It’s unsurprising, given the assaultive, powerful and often disturbing nature of Gaspar Noé’s movies, which have included the controversial I Stand Alone and Irreversible, that an interview with the director himself should prove to be so unusual and meandering.
Speaking enthusiastically and at breakneck speed, Noé discussed the making of his latest film, Enter The Void, an extraordinarily hypnotic, individual meditation on life, drugs, sex and death…
The film is astonishingly ambitious, both technically and philosophically. There can’t be many directors attempting to show what it’s like to die in the first person and then be reincarnated. What set you on the path to such a film?
I read books on reincarnation and many books about out-of-body experiences. Actually, the movie is not so much about reincarnation. It’s more about someone who gets shot while on acid and DMT [Dimethyltryptamine], and trips out about his own death and dreams about his soul escaping from his flesh, because he wants to keep this promise to his sister that he’ll never leave her, even after death.
I don’t believe in life after death. But I still enjoyed the idea of doing a movie that would portray that collective dream, that collective need. Like flying saucers are a collective need for people who need to believe in flying saucers. You don’t need to believe in flying saucers to do a movie about Martians or flying saucers.
You just say, well, it’s in literature and books and people need to believe there’s something after [death] because otherwise life is too short. It’s better to tell people that, don’t worry, life is short but you get to have a second chance. You can survive and always rearrange things that happened in your lifetime.
That’s what all religions rely on. They say you’ll be rewarded somewhere up there in the sky, or if you misbehave you’ll go to hell. But those are brainwashing tools to make people take their money and bring it to the churches.
Buddhists are not as hardcore as Catholics and other religions, but they’re still, I think, part of such a huge lie that it’s scary. I didn’t want to promote that lie, and at the end, when you see the baby coming out from the mother’s belly, you don’t see the face of [the central character’s] sister, you see the face of the mother, so you don’t know if you’re seeing his original birth. He’s recreating a false memory of that traumatic moment that was his birth when he discovered light and oxygen. Or is he just getting into a loop, and your perception of time is only likened to how your brain is built.
You don’t know if the character died at the start of the movie, or if he’s going to wake up in a morgue, or in hospital, or in prison. You don’t really know what happened after he got shot. The only part that is really specific is the beginning.
Then, technically, the movie is very complex, and I was happy that this project was delayed and delayed and delayed for many reasons. I was not financially bankable, because I had not made a commercial success before Irreversible, so the movie could finally happen after Irreversible, and would never have happened before.
And also, the fact that it was delayed meant the beautiful aesthetic I got for this movie is far, far better than anything I could have dreamt of eight years ago.
Towards the end, the weird trip turns into a bad trip, like sometimes mushroom trips or acid trips turn into bad trips. But a bad trip can be very rewarding, because when you come out of one, it’s like coming out of a bad dream where you get killed or something, and the moment you wake up, you still feel the presence of that reality and the dream, or the nightmare, is always real. But you feel so safe coming back to the real world, and some people said when they came out of this movie that they were still scared.
Kubrick said something about 2001, that it’s an acid religious movie. I did another acid movie pretending to be religious or Buddhist, but at the end, it’s dysfunctional enough to see that it’s not all it seems.
You mentioned the trip that turns bad at the beginning. It’s almost like its own separate film. How much input did you have in that sequence?
Actually, I drank a few times Ayahuasca, which is a drink full of DMT that is only legal in the Amazonian jungle, so you have to go there to take it. And when you drink it, you have visions that are far scarier or far more futuristic than any visions in altered states you can get from any other means.
You forget that you have a human form and that you’re on a planet. It’s a really hardcore experience that I absolutely do not regret, as when I went there I was already thinking about this project, and I was thinking about images. It was almost like professional research.
So, you always have this excuse, that you’re not just going there for some existential means, you’re going there for professional reasons.
Sorry, what was the question?
Did someone help you with the psychedelic…
No, no, I came back, and one day I was in a city where a guy told me about smokeable DMT, and I said I know, there’s another version of DMT that you smoke that lasts as fine and strong. And I said that when I smoked DMT once, it’s like an Ayahuasca trip, with the promise that Ayahuasca lasts four or five hours, and that seems like a whole day.
Sometimes it’s like a crazy journey, but when you smoke DMT you say, “Oh, I had a great trigger for a four hour movie, or a one-day-long movie and then I did a second time and once again the trip was very intense, but it just does it for five minutes, and then the moment was gone.
I said, “Well, instead of having the guy being on acid at the beginning, I should do a DMT trip that would last five minutes on screen like it lasts in real life,” but the point then is how to portray those visions that are very graphic and very geometrical.
Very many people say that they look like the movie Tron, that they are just bright neon lights, and so, of course, they were going to be done with computer graphics, and hopefully I was working with this company who accepted not only to do the visual effects but also to co-produce the movie.
BUF are the best in France and Pierre Buffin, visual effects provider and co-producer of the movie, put me in contact with the best graphic designer since his company, but worried that his best graphic designers were doing DMT visions or that they had never even experienced mushrooms, so I had to have all these visual references. I want the shapes of the underwater forms of life. I want them to be made of neon lights and I want the background to be black. It has to be scary.
And they came up with many different visuals that were really amazing, that allowed them to make this five-minute film. At the end, some people who were DMT smokers, they came up to me and said it’s close.
Sometimes when you’re on Ayahuasca, you have visions that are almost too simple, too silly, to be spiritual images. You feel that you’re going through a tunnel. It’s like in dreams, where you never know if you’re going to have a nightmare or a sweet dream. I read that maybe the molecule that makes you have dreams is the DMT that you have inside your brain.
So, actually, if you smoke it or you drink it, you have very long and colourful dreams that you would have any night, but only in a small amount. The DMT’s inside your brain already.
And there’s another theory that when people have these final trips where they’re dying or near death, it’s because of the amount of DMT. Because of a car crash, because of fear, because of this or that.
The film’s psychedelic use of colour, it reminded me of Japanese videogames and Japanese anime. Is that why you set Enter The Void in that country, because of its colourful culture and the neon signs and so on?
Tokyo’s like a huge pinball machine. The first time you’re there, and you don’t understand what’s going on, it’s like “ding ding ding ding ding” everywhere. The lights are changing, the neon lights are moving.
In Hong Kong you also have that, but I’d been to Hong Kong just once, and I’d been to Tokyo 15 times. I love their cinema, I love their nightclubs, I love being there. I thought Tokyo would be the very best place to shoot this movie.
And, of course, if you get busted with any drugs in Japan it’s very bad news. Not only if you’re arrested with a small piece of a joint. If you get arrested with cocaine, speed or marijuana in your pee, they make you do a pee test, they can make you go to prison for six months and you’re never allowed to go back to Japan after your sentence.
So, I thought, if you want to have a young, cool drug dealer being in danger, Tokyo is perfect, because if he’s taking 20 pills to a friend and he’s arrested, that could mean four years of jail. So, the tension’s much higher.
If you got arrested in England with 20 pills of ecstasy, nothing much is going to happen to you. I didn’t want the guy to be a big drug dealer. I just wanted him to try to survive on the small money he can take from his friends and his friend’s mother. At a point in the script, it was said that he was a DJ, so maybe he got a little money from there, but the guy has problems providing for himself.
A lot’s been talked about the visual aspect of the film, but the audio side is also fascinating. It reminds me – and I know you used Coil on the soundtrack – of John Balance’s Time Machines project, in that there’s this throbbing, pulsating stereo effect that –
You know the band Coil? He [the band’s late founding member John Balance] did an album called Time Machines –
I don’t know that record. I used another one called ANS, where he used a Russian synthesiser. And I met him, he came to Paris and not only did he give me the rights to use that record ANS, but he also called his ex-partners in Throbbing Gristle and said, “Gaspar wants to put Hamburger Lady in a scene of his movie.”And he convinced the other partners in Throbbing Gristle to let me use the music for my film.
His music for Coil and Throbbing Gristle was trippy. Sometimes just a drum can put you in a hypnotic state, and there aren’t many musicians that play with drums and frequencies that can hypnotise you, and put you in a dream state.
How important do you think the audio is in achieving that, with the strobing and pulsating that you have all the way through? It almost creates an altered state in itself.
Whatever helps to make the audience feel stoned was good. [laughs]
In fact, some people, when they came out of a screening, because there are no end credits, said it was just like being on a rollercoaster. And it’s like zoom! And whoosh! And people come down shaking from the screening room, and say “what a trip!” and it takes them five minutes or so before they say anything else!
Gaspar Noé, thank you very much.